79 days on water

Local author pens travel resource based on dory trip from Juneau to Seattle
"Rowing towards Ketchikan," a photo Dick Callahan took of himself in his dory, "Golden Moon."

If you’ve ever entertained fantasies of taking an open boat trip down the Inside Passage, Dick Callahan has some advice for you: Do it.


Those two words are the force behind his new book, “Gear List of the Golden Moon,” written following his own 79-day trip from Juneau to Seattle in an 18-foot wooden dory.

In the description of the book he writes, “If some things are in the way of your own open boat travels; like you’ve got no boat, no gear, no money, no experience with either distance rowing or sailing and no clue where to start, this book is for you.”

He’ll be signing copies of the book tonight at Hearthside Books downtown during the First Friday Art Walk, and from noon to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, at the same location.

Callahan said the book isn’t really a description of his trip, but rather a practical resource for travelers about what worked for him and what didn’t, everything from the type of boat and sails he used to suggested packing lists of tools and food. The information was gathered in pre-trip research and conversations with other mariners, as well as from his own trial and error experiences. The book mixes this practical advice with more philosophical observations in ways that aren’t unlike Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soul Craft”— the idea being that giving the full focus of your attention to hands-on, concrete tasks can eventually lead to a kind of calm that Callahan referred to as being “in the boat.”

“It took me about five weeks to be ‘in the boat’,” he said. “I know that sounds funny ... to not be trying to get anywhere, to not be wondering how this would look to anybody else, just to be aware of myself in the space.”

Similarly, he quit thinking about his ultimate destination, so his brain wouldn’t get ahead of him.

“I got to a point where I didn’t say ‘I’m going to Seattle.’ If somebody asked me where I was going I would say ‘I’m going to whatever the next town is.’ That way I didn’t have to explain the whole thing. Also, psychologically, I didn’t want to be thinking about that much distance; I didn’t want to be trying to get somewhere.”

Callahan, who grew up boating on lakes in New Hampshire, didn’t have much sailing experience before the trip, so he spent time with sailors before he left — by far the best way to learn, he said.

One thing he did have, however, was a decent knowledge of the water and the tides, which he gleaned from his experiences as a commercial fisherman and diver. He said that was a big help, as was his tolerance for Southeast weather.

He outfitted his boat with a sleeping platform, setting up his tent on the boat itself, which also helped minimize bear concerns. He said unpleasant experiences on the trip were few and far between. There were no major emergencies, and the small ones were, in most cases, mitigated by taking care of the problem rather than worrying about it.

“It’s not the same as being scared with nothing to do about it,” he said. “If something happens it’s immediate and you’re using everything you’ve got to take care of whatever it is. Then it’s over and you move on.”

Callahan didn’t bring a cell phone. Instead, he checked in with his wife and two sons via a SPOT device that let them know exactly where he was. He also didn’t read any newspapers or watch any TV, and said all of his interactions with other people were positive.

“The greatest thing about being in a small boat, aside from the fact that its doable, is that there’s no negative energy associated with it,” he said. “Everybody likes it. People would see me and call to me from the bridge (of their boats) all the time, ‘Hey, that’s a great boat!’ I could be five miles out on the water and somebody would come over on a motor boat and want to talk to me.”

The boat Callahan used is a traditionally built lapstrake sailing dory, also known as a surf dory. Though it’s not a fast rower or a fast sailor, he said it does both very well and suited his needs perfectly. Its small size was an advantage when he was looking for a place to anchor.

“You don’t have to have a huge slip at the harbor, you can tuck in pretty much any place ... and that’s true of harbors all the way down the coast,” he said.

As for the overall size of the boat, Callahan settled on 18 feet after talking to Bridget Milligan, a local artist and mariner. She heard from a boat builder that was the ideal size for one person to row.

In the boat section of his book Callahan discusses the option of motors (he didn’t have one), sails, oars and oar locks and other considerations. Instead of laying down rules, he offers suggestions. The tone is conversational, like you’re getting advice from a friend, always with an undercurrent of affirmation and the idea that the undertaking is well worth the effort.

Even if you don’t make the commitment to row all the way to Seattle, Callahan said there are many pleasures in rowing closer to home. He tries to get out on Gastineau Channel as many nights as he can.

“I was out there last night and there’s a plankton bloom going on,” he said. “In the water it’s like being in a snowstorm but the snow isn’t falling, it’s just all suspended all around you ... It’s amazing, the life that’s out there all the time. And it’s right there.”

Callahan said being in a boat for such a long stretch of time gave him a new perspective on his place in the landscape, a topic he is likely to pursue in the next book he plans to write.

“The next book I do is going to be about perspective,” he said. “We aren’t such big stuff. Our human calipers are how we perceive the world around us, but when you take yourself out of that human scale and get into this landscape, that’s a whole different paradigm. We’re just this little tiny thing out there. Intellectually we know that, but to internalize that, see the world from that perspective, is a very different thing.”

• Contact Arts Editor Amy Fletcher at 523-2283 or amy.fletcher@juneauempire.com.


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